This is an exerpt from a piece written
by Misc. Goods owner Tyler Deeb for Big Cartel
The Goodness of Work
It was when I lived briefly in Oakland, California that I first began to call myself a designer. I had moved there from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to become a missionary serving in one of the poorest and historically troubled neighborhoods in America.
My tiny apartment, which I shared with four other people on my team, was two blocks from the Raiders’ stadium, nestled between a junkyard filled with ravenous dogs and abandoned homes. It was 2006 and I was 21 years old, aimless in life with no special skills except profound naiveté.
I was there to do good works and better live out my Christian worldview. But after arriving I saw that my motivation was less philanthropic and more an effort to “come of age” - to shake off the slothfulness of my youth and become someone else - someone new. I was dropped off in front of my apartment complex, carrying nothing but a plastic bin of clothes. I remember stumbling up the stairs and immediately regretting my decision to be there. Nothing was comfortable or easy - I was living in an impoverished and sometimes dangerous neighborhood, I was getting chased by the junk yard dog, my roommates were strange, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t know where anything was and no one within 1,000 miles knew me. The comforts were gone.
Even a trip to the grocery store required a new type of thoughtfulness. My senses were firing on all cylinders and I felt more aware of my surroundings than ever. It was hard work. The privilege I had so recently left behind was a fog compared to this new and richly-colored world. A quality of life that wasn’t achieved by wealth or ease - but instead by these new discomforts and disciplines - a goodness - started to spread around me.
I was awake and this new reality brought new confidence - I wasn’t held to the rut I had dug for myself back home. I was allowed to move more freely and I began teaching myself how to design. While sitting with my laptop, surrounded by my roommates, I quietly explored Adobe Suite.
Today, I live back in Louisville with my wife, Noel, and our five kids. I started a company by happenstance called Misc. Goods Co. I never meant to start a business - after Oakland I continued to teach myself design. I would work at a screen print shop or coffee shop during the day and then design at night. I was working 70 hours a week while making lless than $10,000 a year. Although I was focused on cultivating the good things in life, there was a more poisonous attitude forming - an attitude of control and ego. I was becoming more obsessed with my identity and the way the design world looked at me.
It wasn’t until 2010 that my carefully-guided design career was disturbed. Noel was pregnant with our first son and we simply didn’t make enough money. Two months before Royal was born I received a phone call from a local seminary offering me a salaried position as their lead designer. It came with benefits and security and I had to take it. The opportunity should have made me excited but it didn’t - it actually made me despair. I knew that my creative life was going to drastically change.
I showed up to work on the first day and even though people were welcoming and kind, it didn’t turn my head away from my perceived creative decline. I remember taking long walks with Noel and our newborn in this beautiful city park called Cherokee - and I would lament my life. It was as if every good thing in my life was mixed with a bitter drink. Day by day for eight months my head was being lowered more and more and I couldn’t let go of my hopelessness.
Eventually I had to confront myself - I had to ask a very obvious question. If my wife loves me, if my son is healthy - if I have friends who care for me - then why can’t I be happy? It’s as if I had already forgotten the lesson I learned in Oakland - that life is dynamic and should be enjoyed and worked at on all levels. Why do I need work to be anything more than a source of income? This was the question that got to the core of my distress. My work had become about my identity. It was about how the world saw me and in a twisted way - it was how I gained leverage over the world. I wanted my work to make me important.
"I would lament my life. It was as if every good thing in my life was mixed with a bitter drink. Day by day for eight months my head was being lowered more and more and I couldn’t let go of my hopelessness."
The foolishness of how I had been behaving was slowly being revealed to me and became most poignant once I read the words of King Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes
“Vanity of vanities - vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. - The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind - All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; - All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”
These words struck me. What was I chasing? For what purpose? Was it glory? Was it wealth? Was it status? Was it vanity?
Even if I were wildly successful - how long would it last? Wouldn’t it all just fade away? I started reflecting on the reality that there are past generations of designers and makers like me that have poured out their entire lives for their work - but where are they now? Totally forgotten. Did I actually think that I could achieve more than them? Yes, I did think that. I was chasing the wind. The type of glory I was after was an illusion. You can’t ever grab it, and if you think that you have - you certainly can’t hold onto it.
So, I began loosening my grip and I stopped trying to control every aspect of the trajectory of my career. Instead, I focused on working hard. As a result, I actually began to like my job at the seminary. This new job was giving me an opportunity to teach myself a multitude of new skills. I was becoming a much better designer at the same time I was becoming less preoccupied with being seen as a good designer. But I wasn’t the only one benefitting from the new attitude. My bosses and my co-workers were benefiting also. I was helping make their work more satisfying and vice versa. Working hard isn’t just about feeling good about yourself, it’s about honoring the people around you.
This transition of the way I think about work has positively affected me ever since. I can come home at 5:00 and be present to my wife and kids. I can play video games and wrestle - I can help cook dinner and clean the dishes afterwards while not burning the candle from both ends. I can buy a drink for a friend or help them on moving day with a clear mind - undistracted by my failures at work and without pride for my successes. This shift in perception also allows me to teach my children as they are introduced to the world. I hate to think of them one day having sleepless nights over their work - fixated on their failures. They are loved, they are accepted, and they are infinitely more important than their work. So are we. Yet it’s a privilege to be able to work.
We’ve all tasted the pure goodness of hard work. It doesn’t matter if you’re stacking a pile of wood or making a good meal. Hard work feels inherently good, the problem is that our egos eventually strip the experience of its joy. We start asking ourselves, “Who’s watching?” Or, “Is it good enough?” As if every expression we make needs to be affirmed by the world.
I want to be very clear: You do not have to prove yourself to the world. Do not take the mindless jargon of the internet to heart. You don’t have to “make something amazing today.” You don’t have to “hustle” yourself into oblivion. Just show up to work when you say you’re going to and take care of the people that are depending on you. Whether that’s your boss or a client or your family or your friends. Be trustworthy.
Satisfaction is a discipline that you have to teach yourself daily. You have to put your work down and know that it doesn’t define you. You have to hang your hat on the idea that you tried to be selfless in your work and you worked hard while doing it. And if people didn’t like it - that’s OK. You can only do so much with what you have and your identity doesn’t come from their approval. Your work will be forgotten, you will be forgotten and they will be forgotten.
I eventually left my job at the seminary and began running my own design business. One day, I came into my office and I didn’t have any work to do. I wanted to stay busy, so I began designing a single playing card, the Jack of Spades. The next day - still no work. So I designed the Queen of Spades. Then the next day - again no work. This went on day-in and day-out for three months and at the end of it, I had designed an entire deck of playing cards. I was proud of the accomplishment but I had no money - I was flat broke. In an attempt to scrape some money together for all of the work I had done, I released a Kickstarter campaign for $6,000. And after a 30-day campaign, the project had raised $146,000.
Yes, 146,000 dollars - I was shocked - I had been pushing away the desire of receiving glory for so long that when it came I was speechless. It was too heavy to carry, but it wasn’t just the stress of getting glory. I had to figure out a way to organize and ship 4,000 orders.
The margins of failure felt infinite, the pressure of performance was more than I could bear. But instead of losing sleep at night I remembered that my life was more than my work. I disciplined myself to show up to work every day and work as hard as I could for eight hours and then I would leave. I would go home. I’d go to the park with my family or grab beers with friends. I forced myself to take care of the other important things in my life. At the end of fulfillment we had met the expectations of our customers and I had finally arrived to the beginning of what I had always wanted in my career - independence and control.
The margins of failure felt infinite, the pressure of performance was more than I could bear.
Since then I have grown the company slowly over five years and the stressors increase with each new endeavor. It has become easy to get lost. Which leads me to talk more about my life as the owner of a business and father of four. If I had never let go of my pride and vanity towards work, under the pressures I face today, my whole life would be in disarray. At times the only compass I can rely on is that hard work is good - for me and those around me. When my insecurity is the motivation of my work, I will never be satisfied. If I believe that my newest success will be my safe-haven and it later reveals itself as carrot on a stick, I will be depressed.
So I would encourage you all to take time to consider the other dimensions of life. Consider new ways in which you can love those around you, how you can put down yourself and encourage those in need. Taking every opportunity to work hard, but at the same time be ready to put work down - finding pleasure in the simple things of life.
I believe that our best work will come from accepting the reality that it’s nothing but dust in the end. Don’t chase the glory. Work hard and be satisfied.
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